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Women of many parts

Is it so unreasonable to want to combine babies and a serious, part-time career? A new book by Jayne Buxton argues not (and she's a management consultant, so she should know)
TO WORK or not to work. Social theorists looking back at the late twentieth century may be surprised by how much paper was covered with discussion of a maternal dilemma which a century of feminism has failed to resolve. Surprised because the answer is staring us, our employers and society in the face. When women are forced to choose between their careers and their children, everyone suffers. So why make the choice? A reorganisation of work could make it unnecessary. The millennial dismantling of traditional work structures may threaten job security, but it also means a chance to reshape the workplace to suit parents of both sexes.

The latest report on the subject, Redefining Work, comes from the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce). In the work world of 2020, says the report's author, Valerie Bayliss, there will be few fixed boundaries between the public, private and voluntary spheres; fewer people will have jobs (though most will be working); the full-time, life-time job will be a thing of the past, as will organisations as we know them, for more and more will be virtual; and risk will have shifted significantly from business to individuals, who will be grappling with the relentless pressures of globalisation and technological advancement. In short, almost everything about work will have changed and, to steal the phrase favoured by Bayliss, the only certainty is uncertainty.

But there are opportunities too in the RSA's future world. Opportunities for people to move between different kinds of employing organisation, to apply their skills in different roles to meet demands, to open life- long learning accounts which they dip into between periods of employment, to manipulate technology to take advantage of work opportunities around the globe. Work will no longer be a place, but an activity that can be conducted anywhere; the 40-40 career (40 hours a week for 40 years) will be dead; and work will be done when individuals want to do it, rather than in fixed hours determined by the employer. Predictions like these may be scary for some, but for women the new flexibility can mean nothing but good.

Today's work world may be steady and safe (relative to that of 2020) but it is also tyrannical. It demands obedience to a set of strict rules which the majority of the working population struggle to abide by. It is well nigh impossible to subscribe to prevailing workplace rules and fulfil caring responsibilities without going crazy in the process - impossible to work a 45-hour plus week and oversee children's homework and attend to their emotional needs; to practice cunning career management while making time to take supper to an elderly parent every evening; to work eight consecutive shifts and face the prospect of a weekend's housework and family time with energy and good humour.

We are painfully aware of the impossible clash between work and the rest of life, for many of us live it. But it has also been spelled out for us often, in the form of the interminable media war between those who support mothers working, and those who insist that mothers should stay at home and raise their children. In this war-like debate, the full-time mother camp insists that if you try to raise children while keeping one eye on a career you will be contributing to childhood depression, falling educational standards and juvenile delinquency. Nonsense, says the other camp. A happy mother makes for a happy child, and what's more, all the evidence shows that children raised in day-care are brighter and more independent than children raised exclusively by their mothers. Meanwhile, both camps are quivering under the weight of the deception they are practising. For many full-time mothers miss the independent identity, the adult company and the money they used to derive from work. And while working mothers put on a brave face, their heads are swimming with notes to the teachers unwritten, lists of household essentials unpurchased, and memories of having prised the arms of their wailing two year olds from around their ankles as they left for work. Faced with the macho rigidity of today's workplace, neither group has much alternative but to make a choice between work and home and defend it to the hilt.

But now there is a hint of something better. For if the world of work is really changing - and the RSA paper is not the only evidence we have that it is - mothers will have another choice. That of working within environments which better accommodate their needs for flexibility, for less than full-time, year-long employment, for acknowledgement that output matters more than the hours put in to create it. In the world envisioned by the RSA, a mother - or father - who wants to do challenging, fulfilling work three days a week with half-term breaks off will look less an anomaly than the plain vanilla employee.

The RSA paper talks at length about the implications of the brave new work world for workers, volunteers, learning, education and career services, but remains curiously silent about its implications for mothers and children, who feature as somewhat shadowy figures - rather like people reluctantly invited to a party but ushered into a dark corner and not introduced to the other guests. The RSA was not alone this week in failing to make the explicit link between existing working patterns and impoverished family lives. Journalist Anne Robinson, interviewed in the Guardian, insisted that working mothers ought not to demand special treatment, but "see to their childcare" and think of a child as "just another handicap", later lamenting, however, that "something has been lost in family life". Spot the connection? She didn't.

But there is a connection, as the many researchers and campaigners working tirelessly in the work-life field have always maintained. Representatives from organisations like the Thomas Coram Research Unit, the BT Forum for Better Communication, New Ways to Work and Parents at Work have all made the case for changing working culture to reflect the needs of families. And their ideas seem finally to be coming in from the periphery and being adopted by the wider community. Discussions groups about new ways of working are being held all around the country.

No matter how powerful the evidence that work is changing, and how airtight the case for encouraging that change, the real test will come inside organisations themselves. Business and organisational leaders will determine how quickly new ways of working are adopted, and the extent to which the changes support employees with caring responsibilities. And we should never underestimate the scale of resistance to that message which still exists throughout corporations. In many places of work, almost any initiative taken to address employee concerns about work-life imbalance is interpreted as a sign that the company is "going soft" and sacrificing profit in the process. "We have to remember that we're running a business, not a dammed holiday camp," is typical of the response from managers.

Overcoming resistance like this requires change of a truly phenomenal and fundamental nature. Organisational leaders will need to embark on major efforts to change culture and work processes, and front those efforts with changes in their own behaviour. They will need to actively measure and monitor progress, rewarding those who support new ways of working, and giving strong messages to those who think it's smart to squeeze out profits at the expense of people's mental, physical and emotional health.

They will need to enlist the support of all within their organisations - men and

women, junior, middle and senior managers.

For leaders to do this, they have to be convinced that it is good for business. A societal case for change, such as that hinted at in the RSA's work, will not be enough to convince a CEO with shareholders baying for his blood that it is sensible to talk about a new paradigm of work. He or she needs to be able to demonstrate that changing workplace culture and processes to better accommodate people's lives makes business sense. And there is plenty of evidence that it does. Policies, practices and work processes which enable people to achieve balance between their work and personal lives reduce stress, which in turn reduces absenteeism, enhances productivity and creativity and decreases employee turnover. And there is a compelling link between low turnover and superior knowledge retention, creativity, and customer satisfaction.

The RSA's paper is important because it serves as one more voice alerting us to the fact that the work world must change, is changing, and "can be influenced and steered". What is now critical is to ensure that we steer in such a way that the opportunities and benefits are captured by organisations and families. Flexibility must be implemented with families in mind. Otherwise, it risks being just another form of tyranny.

Jayne Buxton is the author of 'Ending the Mother War', published by Macmillan on 19 June